Wayne Thiebaud’s distinctive paintings of everyday objects—cakes, pies, lipsticks, flowers—established his place among the top artists working in the burgeoning Pop art movement of the early 1960s. These still lifes, carefully rendered with lush brushwork, are typically set against blank white backgrounds. Drawing inspiration from shop windows and restaurants, Thiebaud grants his prosaic subjects great dignity by isolating them in radically unadorned settings.
Thiebaud’s most recognizable series takes as its subject the objects and accouterment of restaurants and diners. Thiebaud worked in restaurants as a young man, and is widely known for the paintings of cakes, pies, and diner food that became central to his career. These restaurant scenes—found in collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art—can be understood as representing the middle-class American consumer landscape that Thiebaud has made a central part of his career. The artist described his modest subjects as stemming from his interest in “democratic pleasure.” He described his subjects as “comfort food, middle-class things, available throughout America. . . . My things have a lot to do with nostalgia.” (2)
It was in 1960 that Thiebaud began painting the images of food and other ordinary objects that would bring him wide recognition. His first exhibition with dealer Allan Stone in 1962—who became a close friend and who would represent Thiebaud for decades --sold out. The show garnered enormous critical attention in national publications including Time magazine and the New York Times; in his review for the Times, critic Brian O’Doherty called Thiebaud the “Edward Hopper of the dinette tabletop.” (3) The Museum of Modern Art bought a painting, Cut Meringues, from the exhibition.
Born in Arizona and raised in Southern California, Wayne Thiebaud apprenticed briefly in the animation department of Walt Disney Studios while still a teenager. He went on to study commercial art and worked as a freelance cartoonist and illustrator in New York and Los Angeles during the 1940s. During this period, Thiebaud also pursued his own art seriously; he participated in an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1948, his first major museum show.
In the 1950s, he began teaching art and art history at Sacramento Junior College and also worked in set and exhibition design. During periods spent in New York City, he frequented the haunts of the artists who would become known as the New York School and made the acquaintance of the group’s artists and critics, including Willem de Kooning and Thomas Hess. In the latter half of the decade, Thiebaud depicted the everyday objects and store windows that would become his hallmark, often overlaying the subjects with broad, gestural brushwork.
After the success of his more austere food and shop window paintings of the early 1960s, Thiebaud began portraying figures in a similarly unsentimental manner, eschewing affectation or idealization. The artist began his third major subject, landscapes, in 1966. Both rural and urban, these scenes are drawn from the observed world but distort and exaggerate size and distance, resulting in wildly steep hills, flattened vistas, and vertiginous skyscrapers.
In addition to his work as a painter, Thiebaud had a long career as a distinguished teacher. In 1960, he began teaching at the University of California, Davis, and was there until 1990; he is now professor emeritus. He has also held more than fifteen artist-in-residence positions and has earned numerous awards honoring his teaching.
Thiebaud’s work is held in most major collections of American art, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Phillips Collection, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
1. Steven H. Nash, Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective. (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000), p. 15.
2. Wayne Thiebaud, interview with Susan Larsen, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 17 May 2001. http://aaa.si.edu/exhibits/pastexhibits/thiewayn/checklist.htm.
3. Brian O’Doherty, “Art: America Seen Through Stomach,” The New York Times, 28 April, 1962.
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